Kevin Garnett is a gifted mimic. He steps off the basketball court and seconds later is on a rollicking roll, from the late rapper Tupac Shakur to a dead-on Tony Montana, the Al Pacino mobster in "Scarface," to quick riffs goofing on his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates. No one is ever safe from Garnett's barrages, except his mom. She calls regularly from back home in Mauldin, S.C., with the most... uh, helpful suggestions on dealing with the rigors of NBA life. "When I hurt my ankle this season, she told me to eat tomato soup," says Garnett. "I'm like, 'Ma, how is that going to help?' But then you know what I did, right?" Of course: Kevin heated up the soup.
Since he arrived in the NBA five years ago, Garnett, 23, has been heating up the basketball court too. Each season the seven-footer has upped his scoring, rebounding and assists, establishing himself as the most versatile big man in the league. He can hammer the ball inside or throw a feathery pass in the lane, and this season has added a respectable three-point shot to his offensive repertoire. Only the fact that Garnett labors in the NBA hinterlands has slowed his ascension to the pantheon of the post-Michael NBA. But now, with a boost from some clever Nike ads (especially his Foosball contest with soccer heroine Brandi Chastain), "KG" has fame to match his game. At Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Oakland, Calif., Garnett will start at forward--voted by fans ahead of more-ballyhooed players like Karl Malone and Tim Duncan.
Garnett called his selection a surprise and went so far as to apologize to Malone for being chosen ahead of him. Garnett's humility is not exactly standard issue in today's NBA. Nor is his work ethic, which is a throwback to the league's less glamorous days. Kevin even claims to love Minneapolis for its weather because it seldom offers him any distractions from basketball. "My father was never part of my life and my mother had two jobs," says Garnett, whose mom cleaned homes by day and offices by night. "She and my grandmother told me you got to work for everything you get. Nothing is ever promised to you and nothing lasts forever. I won't forget."
That Garnett has proved to be a model NBA citizen is a considerable irony. Kevin seemed to be emblematic of absolutely everything wrong with today's NBA. He entered the league at the age of 19, the first high-schooler in two decades to make that giant leap. Few who followed had his skills or maturity. Then, at 21, Garnett scored the biggest contract in sports history, a six-year, $126 million deal. The deal proved the proverbial straw that, while not exactly breaking the NBA's back, provoked league management into last season's labor war. "Don't blame me," he says. "I was just a kid getting what he can get. That's the American way."
The American way has yielded Garnett a household filled with toys, including his favorite, a large go-cart track in his backyard. And it has produced a significant upgrade in KG's accessories; having always worn a rubber band around his arm for luck, Kevin's ears now sparkle with--"bling-bling!"--10k earrings. The impact on the NBA has been more profound. The new labor agreement ensures that no more youngsters will land deals of Garnettian dimensions. Still, NBA Commissioner David Stern is a big KG fan. Stern told NEWSWEEK that when Minnesota opened this season in Tokyo, he was particularly impressed with Garnett's gentle humor and "kindness" in dealing with a less-than-basketball-savvy Japanese press.
Garnett originally hoped to play college hoops. But on his first try at the standardized college-admission test, he failed to make the minimum score that would allow him to play NCAA basketball. While he retook the test, Kevin began eying the NBA. And with NBA teams promising he would be a high first-round pick, Kevin leaped--and was locked into the pro path by the time he learned he had scored high enough for college. But, he says, there's no looking back, though he hopes some day to pursue a college degree.
Like many of today's young stars, he arrived in the big leagues with a crew from back home, dubbed his OBF, or "Official Block Family." But unlike most, Garnett also sought out older mentors on the team and in the community. "You don't know how many ballplayers come to town, call me up and their first question is, 'How can I make more money?' " says Jimmy Jam, a local record producer whose stable has included Prince and Janet Jackson. "Kevin's first question was about the community and what he could do to help."
Kevin became a regular visitor to hospitalized children, and started his own foundation to help poor kids with medical expenses. He embraced this small-market city, but in a way, he paid for it. After signing Kevin, Minnesota could no longer afford veteran, all-star forward Tom Gugliotta, who departed as a free agent. Then Stephon Marbury, Garnett's friend and basketball soulmate, forced a trade rather than accept a lesser deal and, inevitably, second billing on the club. "I can't begrudge the next man his wish," says Kevin. "They did what was right for them." But Jimmy Jam says Garnett was devastated by the breakup of a team he believed was on the verge of greatness. "He felt they deserted him," says Jam. "That there was history to be made with the three of them together in Minnesota. He was pretty confused about what was next for the team."
This season Garnett has had to assume a more prominent leadership role, a far more difficult stretch for him than any slam-dunk. "I've always used my ears first and my mouth second," he says. But Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale, himself a Hall of Fame forward, told Garnett to abandon his natural deference and "learn to step up and take the shot." KG did so hesitantly. "I needed the older guys to give me the nod and say it was OK," he says. "That's what respect is all about, and it's just second nature to me. Like prayer before a meal."
The team struggled early this season. Coach Flip Saunders says Garnett was like a golfer who was swinging harder and harder and playing worse and worse. "You can't panic at the first sign of blood," says Garnett of the T-wolves' bad start. He worked hard at learning to relax in his role as the team's go-to guy, and now his scoring, rebounding and assist averages are up for a fifth straight season. More important, Minnesota enters the all-star break among the NBA's hottest teams, for the first time ever jockeying for playoff position with the league's elite. The whole league is now on notice--soup's on!